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Continuous Forms. Category of Aspect

§ 518. The development of Aspect is linked up with the growth of the Continuous forms. In the OE verb system there was no category of Aspect; verbal prefixes especially ʒ e-, which could express an aspective meaning of perfectivity in the opinion of most scholars, were primarily word-building prefixes (see § 193). The growth of Continuous forms was slow and uneven.

Verb phrases consisting of bē on (NE be) plus Part. I are not infre­quently found in OE prose. They denoted a quality, or a lasting state, characterising the person or thing indicated by the subject of the sentence, e. g. seō... is irnende purh middewearde Babylonia burʒ “that (river) runs through the middle of Babylon”; ealle pā woruld on hiora ā ʒ en ʒ ewill onwendende wǣ ron nē ah C wintra “they all were destroying the world (or: were destroyers of the world) at their own will for nearly fifty years”.

§ 519. In Early ME ben plus Part. I fell into disuse; it occurs occa­sionally in some dialectal areas: in Kent and in the North, but not in the Midlands. In Late ME it extended to other dialects and its frequency grew again, e.g.

Syngynge he was or floytynge al the day. (Chaucer)

(‘He was singing or playing the flute all day long.’)

The flod is into the greet see rennende. (Gower)

(‘The river runs into the great sea.’)

At that stage the construction did not differ from the simple verb form in meaning and was used as its synonym, mainly for emphasis and vividness of description. Cf.:

We holden on to the Cristen feyth and are byleving in Jhesu Cryste. (Caxton)

(‘We hold to the Christian faith and believe (lit. “are believing”) in Jesus Christ.’)

§ 520. In the 15th and 16th c. be plus Part. I was often con­fused with a synonymous phrase — be plus the preposition on (or its reduced form a) plus a verbal noun. By that time the Pres. Part. and the verbal noun had lost their formal differences: the Part, I was built with the help of -ing and the verbal noun had the word-building suffix -ing, which had ousted the equivalent OE suffix -unʒ.

She wyst not... whether she was a-wakyng or a-slepe. (Caxton)

(‘She did not know whether she was awake (was on waking) or asleep.’)

A Knyght... had been on huntynge. (Malory)

(‘A knight had been hunting (lit. “on hunting”).’

The prepositional phrase indicated a process, taking place at a cer­tain period of time. It is believed that the meaning of process or an ac­tion of limited duration — which the Cont. forms acquired in Early NE — may have come from the prepositional phrase. Yet even in the 17th c. the semantic difference between the Cont. and non-Cont. forms is not always apparent, e. g.:

The Earl of Wesmoreland, seven thousand strong, is marching hith­erwards. (Shakespeare)

What, my dear lady Disdain! Are you yet living? (Shakespeare). Here the Cont. makes the statement more emotional, forceful.)

The non-Cont., simple form can indicate an action in progress which takes place before the eyes of the speaker (nowadays this use is typical of the Cont. form):

Enter Hamlet reading... P o 1 o n i u s. What do you read, my lord?

It was not until the 18th c. that the Cont. forms acquired a specific meaning of their own; to use modern definitions, that of incomplete concrete process of limited duration. Only at that stage the Cont. and non-Cont. made up a new grammatical category — Aspect. The meaning of non-Cont. — Indef. — forms became more restricted, though the contrast was never as sharp as in the other categories: in some contexts the forms have remained synonymous and are even interchangeable to this day (e. g. after while).

§ 521. By that time the formal pattern of the Cont. as an analyti­cal form was firmly established. The Cont. forms were used in all genres and dialects and could be built both from non-terminative verbs, as in OE, and from terminative verbs. They had extended to many parts of the verb system, being combined with other forms. Thus the Future Cont. is attested in the Northern texts since the end of the 13th c.; the first unambiguous instances of the Perf. Cont. are recorded in Late ME (see § 515).

For many hundred years the Cont. forms were not used in the Pass. Voice. In Late ME the Active Voice of the Cont. form was sometimes used with a passive meaning:

My mighte and my mayne es all marrande. (York plays)

(‘My might and my power are all being destroyed.’) (lit. “is destroying”).

The Active form of the Cont. aspect was employed in the passive meaning until the 19th c. The earliest written evidence of the Pass. Cont. is found in a private letter of the 18th c.:

... a fellow whose uppermost upper grinder is being torn out by the roots...

The new Pass. form aroused the protest of many scholars. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, called it a “vicious” expression and recommended the active form as a better way of expressing the passive meaning. He thought that phrases like the book is now printing; the brass is forging had developed from the book is a-printing; the brass is a-forging; which meant ‘is in the process of forging’, and therefore possessed the meaning of the Pass. Even in the late 19th c. it was claimed that the house is being built was a clumsy construction which should be replaced by the house is building. But in spite of all these protests the Pass. Voice of the Cont. aspect continued to be used and eventually was recognised as correct.

The growth of the Cont. forms in the last two centuries is evidenced not only by its spread in the verb paradigm — the development of the Pass. forms in the Cont. Aspect — but also by its growing frequency and the loosening of lexical constraints. In the 19th and 20th c. the Cont. forms occur with verbs of diverse lexical meaning.

§ 522. The uneven development of the Cont. forms, their temporary regress and recent progress, as well as multiple dialectal and lexical restrictions gave rise to numerous hypotheses about their origin and growth.

Some scholars attribute the appearance of the Cont. forms in English to for­eign influence: Latin, French or Celtic. These theories, however, are not confirmed by facts.

Numerous instances of OE bē on + Part. I were found in original OE texts, particularly in the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES. But the construction is rare in translations from Latin, for instance in Wyklif's translation of the BIBLE.

There have been discovered some points of contact between the usage of the Cont. form and a similar phrase with the Pres. Part. in O Fr. Yet, the latter phrase was of rare occurrence and therefore it could not produce any influence upon English. It should also be recalled, that in the 13th — 14th c., when French literature was popular in England, the Cont. forms fell into decay.

The possibility of Celtic influence is even more doubtful, though in ME the construction is found in the dialects bordering on Celtic territories: in the West Midlands, in Ireland and in the North. It is known that even the English vocabu­lary was not affected by contacts with Celtic tongues — though the vocabulary of a language is most susceptible to foreign influence. Therefore it would be most unrealistic to think that the Celtic tongues could have produced a serious effect on English grammar.

The internal sources of the Cont. forms is a moot question too. The historians of the 19th c. believed that the Cont. form was a direct continuation of the OE phrase Won plus Part. I. Two circumstances, however, have given rise to another theory: the obsolescence of the construction in Early ME and the growth of a prep­ositional phrase, ben on/at huntinge, in Late ME. It was thought probable that the Cont. form came essentially from the phrase with a verbal noun, the preposition being eventually weakened to a- and dropped. Some recent investigations have shown, however, that the former view was more justified as the frequency of the type to be a-doing has never been high as compared with that of to be doing. (According to F. Mosse, between 1500 and 1700, at the time when the prepositional phrase was most popular, its average frequency reached only 10% of that of the participial phrase.) O. Jespersen proposed a sort of compromise between the two extreme views: he did not doubt the continuity of the OE participial construc­tion and the Cont. form but thought that the participial phrase amalgamated with the prepositional phrase and acquired the meaning of process from the latter, though it retained the old formal pattern — be plus Part. I.

Growth of Analytical Forms and New Grammatical.
Categories of the Verbals

§ 523. The development of analytical forms and new grammatical categories has transformed not only the finite verb but also the verbals.

Compound forms of the infinitive appeared at a very early date: the Pass. Inf., consisting of bē on plus Part. II, is found in OE texts, though its semantic contrast to the simple form is not consistent, since the OE Active Inf., despite its form, could sometimes have a passive meaning. Cf.:

hwelce pā hæ pnan ʒ odas sindon tō weorpianne (’which heathen gods were to be worshipped’) — active form, passive meaning

Sceolde witedō m bē on ʒ efyllod.

(‘The prophesy should be fulfilled.’) — passive form and meaning.

In ME texts we find different types of compound Inf.: the Pass. Inf., the Perf. Inf. in the Active and Pass. forms, e. g.

pey bep to ben blamed eft parfore (c. 1300)

(‘they are to be blamed for that again’)

He moste han knowen love and his servyse

And been a feestlych man as fressh as May. (Chaucer)

(‘He must have known love and its service and (must have) been a jolly man, as fresh as May.’)

The wordes of the phisiciens ne sholde nat hart been understonden in thys wise. (Chaucer)

(‘The words of the physicians should not have been understood in this way.’)

In the texts of the 16th and 17th c. we find the same compound forms of the Inf. and also new Cont. and Perf. Cont. forms, e. g.

... first to correct him for grave Cicero, and not for scurril Plautus whom he confesses to have been reacting not long before. (J. Milton)

Evidently in the 17th c. the Inf. had the same set of forms as it has in present-day English.

§ 524. The analytical forms of Part, I began to develop later than the forms of the Inf. It was not until the 15th c. that the first compound forms are found in the records:

The seid Duke of Suffolk being most trostid with you... (Paston Letters)

(‘The said Duke of Suffolk being most trusted by you.’)

In the 17th c. Part. I is already used in all the four forms which it can build today: Perf. and non-Perf., Pass. and Active, e. g.:

Now I must take leave of our common mother, the earth, so worthily called in respect of her great merits of us; for she receiveth us being born, she feeds and clotheth us brought forth, and lastly, as forsaken whol­ly of nature, she receiveth us into her lap and covers us. (Peacham, 17th c.)

Julius Caesar, having spent the whole day in the field about his mil­itary affairs, divided the night also for three several uses... (Peacham)

The forms of Part. I made a balanced system: Pass. versus Active Perf. versus non-Perf. Part. II remained outside this system, correlated to the forms of Part. I through formal differences and certain semantic affinities and oppositions (see forsaken and brought in the examples above and Table 10 below).

§ 525. Compound forms of the -ing-form used in the functions of a noun, that is the Gerund, were the last to appear. The earliest in­stances of analytical forms of the Gerund are found in the age of the Lit­erary Renaissance, —when the Inf. and Part. I possessed already a com­plete set of compound forms. The formal pattern set by the Part. was repeated in the new forms of the Gerund. The following quotations il­lustrate compound forms of the Gerund in the texts of the 17th and 18th c.:

To let him spend his time no more at home,

Which would be great impeachment to his age

In having known no travel in his youth. (Shakespeare)

Yet afraid they were, it seemed: for presently the doors had their wooden ribs crushed in pieces by being beaten together. (Th. Dekker, early 17th c.)

This man, after having been long buffeted by adversity, went abroad. (Smollett, 18th c.)

§ 526. The formal distinctions which had developed in the system of the verbals towards the 17th and 18th c. are practically the same as in Mod E. The forms of the Inf. and the -ing-form (Part. I and Gerund) make up grammatical categories similar to those of the finite verb: Voice, Time-Correlation and Aspect. It may be assumed that the rela­tions between the members of these grammatical categories in the ver­bals roughly corresponded to those of the finite forms, both semanti­cally and formally. It should be noted though that sometimes the se­mantic oppositions were less strict or, perhaps, they were more often neutralised. For instance, the Active Inf. could still express a passive meaning:

His noble free offers left us nothing to aske. (Bacon, 17th c.)

(See OE examples in § 523. )

The non-Perf. forms in many contexts acquired the meaning of the perfect form, e. g.:

And so, giving her sufficient means and money, for his own reputa­tion sake, to rid her from Bristol and ship her for London, on his wife he bestowed all those jewels (Dekker) (giving is equivalent here to hav­ing given).



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